How letting researchers have fun pays off

26 Sep 2023 | News

A study of a no-strings-attached Danish research grant scheme shows that setting researchers free to explore their own ideas provides relief from the rat race and is good for science

Researchers are tired. They spent their days looking for funding and when they find it, it comes with a myriad of bureaucratic and objective-driven strings attached. A chosen few may get their hands on big fundamental research grant, the holy grail of science. Others are stuck on a hamster wheel, racing to deliver the list of outcomes they promised in their proposal, feeling constrained and demotivated.

But there’s a route that might lead to better outcomes and greater job satisfaction, say Andreas Kjær Stage and Ea Høg Utoft, who recently published a study on scientists’ experiences with the Villum Experiment (VE), a double-blinded Danish funding scheme targeting early-stage risky, novel research.

The VE grants, awarded based on ideas rather than CVs, are modest in size and duration, giving researchers around €266,000 over two years. They prioritise out-there thinking rather than predetermined outcomes. Like more mainstream funding, quality of the science counts, but as it turns out, the freedom which they afford the scientists is where the appeal lies.  

When Kjær and Utoft sat down with the recipients of these grants, the conversations all went the same way – the interviewees started juxtaposing the ‘soft’ VE grants with typical mainstream funding which involves a lot more money - and far more bureaucracy and preconditions.

“We were very surprised how big of a difference it made for our interviewees. They would much rather have a small pool of money, because of the experience,” says Kjær.  “Sometimes how you find the conditions and the bureaucratic set-up is seen as something separate from the research itself. What we found was that those two things are connected.”

The interviewees’ enthusiasm was contagious, Utoft adds. Some had their ideas in mind for years before they managed to secure the funding. They recalled feeling like high profile scientists they grew up admiring, who made history through open-minded experimentation. For many, being free of the shackles of predetermined project plans, research outcomes and constricting roles felt like going back to basics, to what being a scientist means to a student daydreaming about their future.

The double-blind selection process for VE grants meant that for some, the attraction was being judged on their ideas, rather needing a long list of past achievements and high profile supervisors and colleagues.

Researchers viewed these grants as “a logical step back to what science truly means to them, and what the scientist identity means to them. And they are then enabled to live that identity, much more than they feel they are able to with the mainstream grants,” says Utoft.

Strategic programming vs freedom

Allowing excellent researchers a free hand is considered good for science. It’s where true innovation comes from, producing breakthroughs that provide the feedstock for traditional research and development projects.

This is why from 2021 – 2027 the EU is investing €16 billion in the European Research Council (ERC), for fundamental research. Here again, the aim is to fund leading researchers to complete multi-year programmes of leading edge science.

But the ERC’s more ‘free form’ of grant-giving is the exception to most research funding in EU countries and in the EU’s €95.5 billion Horizon Europe research programme.

Over the last few years, complaints have been mounting that EU funding for research is becoming very much strategically and policy-driven, and shaped to help fulfil Europe’s green and digital ambitions. In big consultation on how the EU research programmes are doing earlier this year, most stakeholders had one key message: they asked for smaller grants targeting earlier-stage research.

The softer-type grants would balance out “this asymmetry which is intensifying – everything is just moving towards bigger and bigger grants, and the grants are getting more and more bureaucratic,” says Kjær.

The focus on big and strategic has real-world consequences. Burnout is becoming widespread among researchers and precarious employment conditions and unrealistic expectations have been the focus of numerous calls to improve research careers in the last few years.

Kjær and Utoft say the VE-style grants can provide a much-needed breathing space for researchers stuck in the rat race of chasing one grant after another. “I think that there is a tendency for the system to break people down,” says Utoft. “What we saw in our paper was that even that small respite, and break from the hassle and the hamster wheel, and doing things differently just for a short while provides a huge sense of relief and re-energises.”

Re-energises is a key word here: the inspiration and benefits to mental health carry through to other research projects funded by more traditional grants, the researchers believe.

Balanced view

The answer lies in bringing more balance into how research is funded at national and EU levels. Neither the scientists interviewed nor the authors think that more relaxed grants should replace big collaborative research projects, but a better balance could help improve scientists’ mental health and motivation, as well as give a boost to breakthrough science.

Such schemes exist, but not enough money is being distributed in this way today. In some cases, these softer scheme even become the victims of their own success: a similar Volkswagen Foundation Experiment, for example, drowned in applications and became too competitive - with success rates as low as 3%.

But the blueprint is there, largely set out by smaller funders. Now, the EU should follow these examples and provide these sorts of grants. “It's unfair that that responsibility is just pushed downwards to the small funders. It is really a system-wide responsibility,” says Kjær.

Of course, that’s not an easy ask. It’s likely to be bureaucracy-heavy to award a bigger number of smaller grants rather than one big one, says Utoft. But it’s time funders took more responsibility over how their programming affects researchers.

And they should make sure these grants reach scientists in all field of research. “I've never heard of anything for the social sciences or humanities like this,” adds Utoft.

Never miss an update from Science|Business:   Newsletter sign-up